Over the last few decades, I have come to the realisation that we have a broken culture when it comes to mental health. This is the first of a series of blogs about mental health, from my own perspective, about living and dealing with mental health issues. I will share my experience of mental health and suicide, the personal impact and the struggle with a poor work culture and an inadequate health and welfare system. Most importantly, I would like to help create an awareness of mental health issues to help fix what I see as a failing system. A big thank you to my friends and family who have encouraged and supported me to speak out and start this journey. I would appreciate your patience, feedback, input and comments.
A natural place for me to start is that of being a carer as this is the biggest lens through which I have recently seen (and experienced) the difficulties with mental health support. It is an area that receives very little attention and, all too often, is treated as a box ticking exercise by corporations. I expect that many of you reading this have or suspect they will experience a very similar situation where you will find yourself supporting elderly and unwell family members, with mental health issues. In my case, just trying to cope with a bi-polar daughter who suffered from psychosis and schizophrenia was hard enough and brought me close to the edge. My experience with the corporate culture of “support” during these difficult times has been pretty negative. To demonstrate my point, I have taken extracts from an email I sent to the CEO and a senior executive in one of my previous companies, at a time when everything seemed to conspire against me, I was on my knees and the support I needed just wasn’t there. “Dear …….& ….., In light of our company values, I would like to bring your attention to my current situation in a personal email, that has been very hard to write at a very difficult time. I took great pride in telling my family and friends that I worked for a company with high ethics. I felt very much part of the company and it was indicated by the management team that my plans were fully supported. This all changed for me, in a dramatic series of events. I was recently informed that the mother of my youngest child, aged six, had breast and lymph node cancer which had moved to an advanced stage. I let my manager and HR know about this. To make matters worse, two weeks ago whilst travelling in my motorhome, with my family, including my 84-year-old mother and 6-year-old son, we had an almost fatal crash, ending up on our side and shutting the M6. I let my manager know what happened and I spent the following weeks in a strange state of trauma. On top of this my eldest daughter who is bi-polar and suffers from schizophrenia, just had another major episode.
Following the crash, I had to look after my youngest as his mother was having a cancer consultation. I explained my current situation to my boss and that I would be coming into the office with my son. Whilst in the office she called me to inform me that her cancer had spread to the lymph node in her neck and that they couldn’t operate. I was extremely upset and immediately told my boss this news, as he walked me into a meeting room with HR, to tell me that I had been selected for redundancy.
During the meeting, my six-year-old came to the meeting room to ask for my help, which was devastating. I left the meeting in a state of shock with no support and had to drop off my crying son, with his ill mother who had just been given her own terrible news. To make matters worse, on the Saturday following my redundancy selection, my mother (who lived with me) passed away. She was also still in trauma from all the recent events.” Following this email, I didn’t get a single response or offer of support from the CEO, my manager or any of the extended executive team apart from stock messages from HR. It left me feeling totally isolated. Not only was I dealing with grief and trauma, but now no job or company support network. The above situation was the worst I had experienced, but is not an isolated episode. During the later stages of both my parents lives they both needed care. It was particularly hard with my dad who had Alzheimer’s. I shared the care with my brother and care companies with help from my partner, friends and family. It could be highly rewarding, and I believe an essential part of who I am and what a family is. Even so, at times it was totally overwhelming. What was I to do when I had to attend or fly to an important company meeting when one of my parents or my daughter needed help without warning? On one occasion, both my dad and daughter were critically ill, in different hospitals in opposite parts of the country. I didn’t even know which way to point the car. Rather than let my boss know that I had to travel round the clock, I just did it. The reason being that he was only interested in what value I could add to the company and the more time I took off for whatever reason, the more vulnerable our positions were. No-one wants to be seen as not capable of doing their job. The reality is poor mental health is seen as a weakness. One of the hardest things to tell your boss is to admit that you have mental health issues. In my experience – at least initially – your boss is supportive, but as time goes on and you continue to struggle, miss or be late for meetings and turn up to work exhausted, you find yourself faced with one of three choices:
Open up to the boss about your issues The first option is that you open up to your management about your own mental health issues. The problem is that, when you are a carer, you can’t afford to let yourself become mentally ill. As you continue down this path, you end up being labelled as mentally unstable, receiving occupational health, possible a short period off work and then side-lined as a weak link.
Rarely in my experience has any company offered flexible working, personal support and a real sense that they really want to help. Not because they are necessarily bad people, but they are under so much pressure themselves and have bought into the relentless corporate aim for career progression and growth. They also have very little training or experience in this area; thus they just want to sweep the problem under the carpet. I need some support and flexibility to help a family member The fear of being seen as mentally ill yourself drives people to the second option, which is to ask for flexibility and support. Initially everyone is supportive, but after a while they just see you as not committed to the company. The sales culture which I have spent most of my career in, just doesn’t tolerate weakness. I do understand why, with the ruthless pursuit of profit and results. However, the contradiction is that the lack of support is creating a sick and disillusioned work force.
In one case, when my father died, my boss said that I should take as much time as I needed. The day after my father’s death my boss emailed me to let me know that I only get one day of unpaid bereavement leave and that I would be expected back in work in a week. It wasn’t that I had to pay, it was the lack of support that got me. I genuinely thought this company was quite caring, but the reality soon dawned on me that my days were numbered. In fact, I was then made redundant that same week when my daughter was also ill. Fortunately, one senior exec in the company recognised the error of their ways and offered me a new role.
It is sad that my dad dying meant I had one less person to support and I could focus more on work, but in reality I was exhausted and still had my unwell mum (who moved in with me), sick daughter and other family members to support. Something always breaks in this kind of scenario and unfortunately it was me. Say nothing The last option is to say nothing, be a stoic and try to continue as normal. This never ends well and often is the cause of the carer then becoming the patient. In this scenario everyone loses. The family lose the main carer, the company lose a valuable employee and the social and health services have to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately, I think this is the route most people take for fear of losing their jobs. For years I deferred to this option and just tried to soldier through. Not even my family knew what I was going through. I think the carer has a rough time and I haven’t even touched the issues with dealing with the demands of family members with disabilities, dementia, the NHS and social services. Then add the police and the lower rungs of society when it comes to mental health issues and it becomes a mine field. Two of my most over used expressions recently have been “Everyone is losing the plot” and “There must be a solution”. All subjects for another blog.
Conclusion – Improve the corporate attitude towards mental health So, what can be done to help the carer? Firstly, I think companies need to step up and put a big investment into on-going mental health awareness, not just one or two presentations a year, if you are lucky. I have heard of some companies taking it seriously and things are improving but I still think we are miles off. Secondly, a new way of working, such as flexible roles need to be created, people should be able to take significant time off to care for their families, without the threat of losing their jobs. The pressure valve needs to be opened and a meaningful support structure needs to be put into place before we just have broken people, broken companies and a broken society.